Why is our water quality so poor?


Beach in Lee County, FL
Beach in Lee County, FL; 22 July 2014 (Photo: Eric Friedebach)

The unfortunate and historic mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee for water supply and drainage required by the approximately 4,440,000 acres of sugar cane fields south of the lake has resulted in harmful algae blooms downstream threatening people, fish and wildlife. 

Poor water quality in the Caloosahatchee River and our coastal estuaries is a political problem requiring a political solution.  Unfortunately, the Lee County Commissioners and Florida Legislature have neither the will nor courage to use their positions as elected officials to properly manage our waterways in the best interest of the public.

Instead of supporting legislation and policies to restore and clean our precious water resources, our local representatives capitulate to special interests, such as the sugar industry, that historically have funneled dark money into campaign coffers. 

The re-plumbing of the Lake Okeechobee watershed for the benefit of Big Sugar prevents critical fresh water from flowing south to nourish the Everglades and Florida Bay, recharge ground water aquifers, slow the advancement of salt water intrusion due to sea level rise, and minimize the adverse impact on coastal estuaries.


American flamingo
American flamingo, photographed in Lee County, FL

In 1996, Florida voters approved the Polluters Pay Constitutional Amendment that requires those primarily responsible for pollution around Lake Okeechobee to clean up their pollution. The Legislature has deferred implementation of this public mandate thereby placing the financial burden of restoring impaired waters on the backs of the public. 

Central to the decision by the South Florida Water Management District in managing the Lake Okeechobee watershed is to maintain water levels at 18 to 24 inches below ground in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the Lake to ensure optimum growing conditions for sugar cane regardless of the seasonal fluctuations of rainfall.

Consequently, during years of heavy rainfall, excess water is back pumped from the EAA into Lake Okeechobee and released to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, resulting in excessive discharge of polluted water downstream to the estuaries on Florida’s west and east coasts.  Unlike EAA drainage to the Everglades where a Federal Consent Decree requires phosphorus threshold levels of 10 parts per billion in surface water runoff, no such numeric nutrient standards are required for water back pumped into the lake.


  • The Lee County Commission and our state legislative delegation need to work jointly to implement numeric nutrient standards for water back pumped from the EAA to Lake Okeechobee, thereby minimizing phosphorus and nitrogen in the lake>  This is one step in mitigating the formation of damaging harmful algae blooms.
  • Working with Florida’s Congressional and state legislative delegations, Lee County Commissioners should support acquisition of 20,000 acres from U.S. Sugar and 30,000 acres from Florida Crystals between the North New River and Miami canals and south of Lake Okeechobee for storage, treatment and conveyance of fresh water to the Everglades.
  • Approximately, 50,000 acres (7% of lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area, EAA) south of the lake needs to be purchased and placed in the public domain for storage and treatment of water runoff from Lake Okeechobee.  Money for the land purchase is available from the Amendment 1 Conservation Funds approved by Florida voters in 2014.  The Lee County Commissioners need to collaborate with the Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties and the state legislative delegation to implement the 1996 Polluters Pay Constitutional Amendment.


Action speaks louder than words.  While our current County Commissioners waffle and backtrack on their positions on environmental issues, our community will continue to witness the demise of the Caloosahatchee and coastal estuaries until they are replaced with elected officials that are genuinely committed to clean water. 

Unfortunately, the political arena has evolved into an ideological battleground where fundamental issues such as responsible stewardship of our environment is ignored — all to the detriment of public health, our real estate and tourism-based economy, and the ultimate restoration of our water resources.